Monday, June 21, 2010

Day on the Delta

Ten minutes from the modest skyline of Sacramento, the San Joaquin Delta's labyrinthian sloughs and levees could just as easily be hundreds of miles from anything remotely urban.

Between slow-moving canals and wide channels grows every imaginable crop, from stone fruits to wine grapes, from enormous truck farms to barley and alfalfa. Levee roads connect tiny towns, some nearly extinct, others quaint and thriving, all a seeming short stroll away from the looming Mt. Diablo. As the delta widens before joining the San Francisco Bay there lies the odd town of Pittsburg, where I was to catch a boat for a picture-taking float.

On arrival, I should have suspected that my scheduled wildlife cruise on the delta would not come off as planned. I had come early, wanting to explore other parts of the delta I hadn't seen before. I made an early-morning stop in Rio Vista, with its great drawbridge and tiny downtown. My plan was to find a coffee shop in Pittsburg for a mid-morning breakfast before taking the noon cruise.

The section of Pittsburg between California Highway 4 and the marina felt like a movie set. Full of new and unfinished buildings of the same architectural style -- roughly that of Main Street in Disneyland -- it felt like an outlet mall on a much larger scale, only bereft of real people. There were no coffee shops or anything else that seemed to have organic origins in capitalism. A sign describing the area as a redevelopment district provided all the explanation necessary -- that this was a quasi-government project that undoubtedly had begun before the recession killed most business investment not subsidized by taxpayers.

The marina was beautiful, including another large unfinished commercial condominium, and many of the slips contained fancy boats. Alas, there was no place to eat breakfast and there were nearly no humans. Still two hours early, I headed back into the older, inland part of town and found a perfectly acceptable restaurant and had a veggie omelet.

Back at the marina, still an hour before the cruise, it remained ominously quiet. There were two construction workers at the unfinished building and nearly no traffic. I spotted the gangway for Delta Discovery Cruises, but I spied no people. Thirty minutes before cruise, and it was pretty clear that I would not be boarding any boats. I called Delta Discovery Cruises -- the line was busy. Tried again 10 minutes later. Busy. Still no people.

At noon, someone finally answered. No, the confused young woman on the other end of the line said,  there was no cruise today. "I'm so sorry," she said after further inquiry, "I'm in training and I was supposed to call you. We'll give you a discount if you want to come on another one."

Well, I'm from Idaho, I explained. In fairness, they had told me when I called to reserve the cruise that they needed 20 to make it work. They also said they'd call me if it had to be canceled, and I gave them my cell number. They didn't mention that they were training a new person to handle the all-important cancellation call.

In truth, I was fairly unperturbed. I reprogrammed my GPS unit for a couple of stops elsewhere in the delta and went back to wandering -- the funky burg of Isleton, the charming village of Walnut Grove, the shady town of Clarksburg, the Chinese settlement of Locke (go here for an earlier post on some of those places). I stumbled across the Bogle winery, known for its inexpensive wines that are a favorite of restaurants far and wide, and otherwise had a great time. Bogle, for what it's worth, is situated amid sloughs and canals probably a few feet below sea level and couldn't be lovelier.

Life in the delta is clearly slower than it is mere miles away in the Bay Area or the urban centers of the San Joaquin Valley, sort of a Mississippi with live oaks instead of magnolias (and probably inferior barbecue, though central California tri-tip is pretty tasty). The levee roads are rough and narrow and there are no shortcuts. All the better.

Did I mention the name of the company that didn't take me cruising on the delta? That would be Delta Discovery Cruises.

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